Queens Park Rangers secured their first Premier League win at Goodison Park on Saturday, outworking an Everton team that never found its rhythm against the energetic new boys.
The contrast between the fortunes of the two teams were the main story leading up to the match, as QPR welcomed a new owner in Tony Fernandes, who promised to spend to improve the club, and Everton boss Bill Kenwright revealed that the club is over leveraged and out of money.
The change in prospects re-invigorated QPR and the club's supporters, with the new owner already launching bids to secure Premier League talents Scott Parker and Shaun Wright-Philips.
Buoyed by the changing winds in the owner's box, the Hoops ground out a convincing win against an Everton side that finished seventh last season on the strength of Tommy Smith's 30th minute goal.
Smith started the match off with an early volley that just sailed wide left of the goal, setting a tempo for a QPR squad missing their top strikers due to illness. In place of DJ Campbell, Jay Bothroyd and Heidar Helguson, Patrick Agyemang started as the lone striker up front, shifting the formation back to a more midfield/defensive set up versus the more aggressive deployment from last week's disaster against Bolton.
The strategy was not without risk, allowing an attack-minded club like Everton to break against the defensive lines again and again, but the team rose to the occasion and for the most part handed in a strong performance. In the absence of injured Kieron Dyer and suspended Clint Hill, the back line featured Bradley Orr, Matthew Connolly, Danny Gabbidon and Fitz Hall. Orr did a good job on the wing to shut down the supply from out wide and getting involved in the transition play and several offensive setups. More than once Gabbidon was the man in the right place at the right time, denying break-aways, interrupting Phil Neville's many pedestrian crosses, and holding the penalty area against the Everton attacks. Shaun Derry did his usual terrier-like work to break up attacks and deny Everton lanes to drive through.
Following a strong start by Everton, QPR broke out and slowed the pace of the game down, leaving the fast break attacks to the home side while they methodically passed up and down the centre and wings of the pitch. At times less than riveting football, but this too was part of the game plan - to wear down and frustrate their opponents. While the team looked rushed and over-eager in their first game, they were patient and cautious in this one, preferring to test the wings and make Everton chase them again and again. It took the home crowd out of the game, who quickly became sullen and quiet over the lack of flair they are used to seeing. In its place was a QPR demonstration in hard work and reservation. As the first half wore on, the Hoops built up the pressure on the Everton defence and worked at creating opportunities.
Adel Taarabt was in form, fluidly working between his team-mates and drawing an early foul from defender Phil Jagielka. His ensuing free kick found no purchase however, and the match pressed on. Moments later Alejandro Faurlin's slide on talented youngster Ross Barkley led to a Leighton Baines free kick from just outside Paddy Kenny's penalty box. The shot was nearly perfect, but just caught the crossbar and dropped back to the pitch to keep the game scoreless. Barkley showed a great deal of skill, leading several drives on the wings and creating some of the Toffees best opportunities all game. He was their Man of the Match without a doubt, and followed the missed free kick with a strike of his own a few minutes later, which thankfully sailed just high into the stands.
In the 30th minute, Akos Buzsaky fed a beautiful pass to Tommy Smith at the edge of the Everton penalty area, and the veteran midfielder curled a brilliant low roller into the far corner past American keeper Tim Howard. The giddy Smith nervously searched for an offside flag and finding none celebrated the first Queens Park Rangers goal in the Premier League since 1995.
Sniffing a bit of momentum, QPR did not deviate from the plan, and continued to work the middle and defensive game while pressing forward when opportunities presented themselves. Unlike the Bolton game, QPR's forward efforts were not lonely one man against the world affairs, but coordinated efforts with Taarabt or Agyemang pressing with Smith and Buzsaky and Faurlin all on hand to receive dump-off passes and play the give-and-go. Overall they looked more confident and composed than they did last week and their play spoke for them.
It was not a walk in the park by any means, and a team as talented as Everton could not be held at bay forever. Late in the first half Jermaine Beckford fired a perfect cross in on goal, and Tim Cahill found with a diving header, but somehow misdirected the shot from point-blank range and missed by inches. Beckford would fail with a header aimed right at Kenny a moment later and Baines found Cahill on another cross just before halftime, but this one too went over the bar to keep the home side off the board. Fitz Hall was again a work in progress at the back, constantly beaten to the ball or left turning his head like a cartoon character while he tried to figure out who he should be covering. But the sure hands of Kenny and the strong work by Gabbidon kept Everton's attack at bay.
QPR kept the grinding pace on in the second half, and despite the addition of attackers like Mikel Arteta, Maourane Fellaini and Louis Saha as time wore on, Everton could find no luck breaking through. Not for want of trying mind you, and once their stars took the field late in the second half, their push was constant but consistently broken up by the likes of Derry and Connolly. Phil Neville came into possession on the right wing a number of times late, but his crosses found only QPR defenders or teammates who were quickly shut down. Just after Saha's arrival in the 72nd minute, Barkley again had a try at the net, forcing Kenny to stretch out and shut down his curling shot.
As regulation neared an end, QPR once again dominated possession and despite a furious attempt to come level in the five minutes of stoppage time, Everton could not find the back of the net. Neville's final cross found Fellaini right in front of the net, but his header was in the keeper's hands before it could threaten a score.
QPR can be proud of a hard-won victory against a superior club. They did it with patience and the right balance of attack and defence, making Everton run more than they did and taking the home crowd out of the match early. Between the constantly improving news coming from management and this result, hopefully the club can build and continue the momentum from here.
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